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Court Battle: Corporate Power Vs. Human Genes

Groups in court battle Myriad Genetics' patents on breast, ovarian cancer genes

Common Dreams staff

Structure of the BRCA1 protein, a gene that can have mutations that lead to breast or ovarian cancer. (emw/creative commons)

A company can't own genes, said groups fighting to release patents held by Myriad Genetics Inc. at a U.S. appeals court Friday.

The Salt Lake City-based Myriad has patents on two genes associated with hereditary breast and ovarian cancer creating a monopoly on genetic tests for them, which prevents women from being able to get tests from other laboratories or even second opinions and provides insured profits for Myriad.

“Patent law was never intended to interfere with the rights of scientists and doctors to conduct their research and exchange ideas freely,” said Chris Hansen, staff attorney with the ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project. “Human DNA occurs in nature. It cannot belong to a particular company.”

"Understanding genetic risk for breast and ovarian cancer is crucial for many women facing life-changing medical decisions,” said Sandra Park, staff attorney with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project. “Patients deserve access to the best quality care and research available, and that can’t happen when only one company controls access to the genes.”

Lisbeth Ceriani, a breast cancer survivor and plaintiff in the case, was forced to pay for Myriad’s $4,000 test.  Though Ceriani had insurance, it wasn't accepted by Myriad.  “I had no other options available to me when I was seeking genetic testing for a potentially life threatening health issue,” said Ceriani.  “No one corporation should be able to deny me the right to look at a piece of my body.”

Last year, the Federal Circuit ruled 2-1 in favor of Myriad, and today it faced the same panel of judges. 

In a sign of a second possible pro-corporate ruling, Judge Kimberly Moore, who was one of the two judges ruling in favor of Myriad last year, said, "There's a lot of money at stake here" and referenced industry expectations, the Wall Street Journal reports.

In an October 2011 interview with Democracy Now! (see video below), medical ethicist Harriet Washington explained the problem with what she calls the medical-industrial complex: "A corporation owns the patent, and what does that mean? It means not only can it do whatever it wants with this gene, it can prevent other people from working with it. In Paris, for example, a French researcher at the Curie Institute found that this particular test, the test of Myriad, actually missed a lot of breast cancers. But that finding could never have been made here in this country, because when other people try to work with these genes, Myriad sends a cease-and-desist letter and tells them, 'We have the patent on this. You cannot work with it.' So, it’s clear that the research into breast cancer treatment is being stymied by this patent. And Myriad is concerned with, as you heard, collecting its $3,000 to $4,000 fees from each woman who gets a BRACAnalysis. I think it’s nothing short of criminal."

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